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Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822)
Shelley's Vegetarianism

Full text of "Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Monograph"

PERCY BYSSHE SHELLEY

H. S. SALT

CHAPTER XIII.

"COB CORDIUM"

After ten days of cruel suspense, two bodies were cast up by the sea on the coast between Pisa and Spezzia, and were identified as those of Shelley and Williams. The Italian quarantine laws for the prevention of plague being most strictly enforced, the bodies were at once buried in the sands, — in those very sands over which Shelley had but lately ridden in company with Byron and other Mends, — until arrangements had been made with the authorities at Florence for their disinterment and cremation. This ceremony took place on the 15th and 16th of August, the body of Williams being burned on the former day, and that of Shelley on the latter, in the presence of numerous spectators, among whom were Byron, Leigh Hunt, and Trelawny.

It was a scene that impressed itself ineffaoeably on the memory of those who witnessed it — the vast expanse of yellow sand, unbroken by sign of human habitation ; the blue and cloudless sky ; the sea calm and smiling; the distant outline of marble-crested Apennines ; and, in the centre of the group of by-standers, the fierce flame that rose from the funeral-pile, quivering with extraordinary clearness from the frankincense, oil, and wine that were plentifully poured over it, wliile close above, in the tremulous and glassy atmosphere, a solitary curlew wheeled and circled with strange pertinacity, "One might have expected," said Leigh Hunt, " a sun-bright countenance to look out of the flame, coming once more before it departed, to thank the friends who had done their duty". There was, indeed, something in the nature of the wild scene and the pagan ceremony that was appropriate to the obsequies of one who was himself a Greek in his instinctive reverence for the elemental purity of sea and fire.

It was Trelawny who had undertaken and faithfully discharged the duty of conducting the search for the bodies of Shelley and Williams, and of carrying the news to the two widows. It was he, too, who, at the end of the cremation, snatched Shelley's heart, which remained unconsumed, from the flames, and collected the ashes in a coffer, in order that they might be buried at Rome in the same Protestant burying-place where Shelley's child, William, had been laid — a spot which Shelley had long before described as "the most beautiftil and solemn cemetery'' he ever beheld. To Leigh Hunt belongs the honour of having suggested the inscription on the tombstone of the words Cor Cordium — a perfect tribute of reverence and affection to the memory of that heart of hearts, whose over-mastering passion, the source of all its strength and all its weakness, had been the love of humankind.

Nor was it only Trelawny and Hunt and Byron who thus gave proof of their respect for the dead. A week after the burning of the bodies, the lonely house at Lerici, now unfurnished and deserted by its former inhabitants, was visited by a solitary traveller, who had turned out of his course, as he journeyed from Pisa to Genoa, to perform this last act of melancholy pilgrimage. It was "poor Tom Medwin," as Shelley had called him, who, poetaster and dilettante though he was, could yet feel keenly the supreme sadness of gazing on those empty and silent rooms that had so lately been filled with the voices of life and happiness, and of standing on the seaward-facing terrace where Shelley had so often listened with delight to Jane Williams's simple melodies. As he passed through the rude entrance-hall on the ground floor, Medwin noticed oars and fragments of spars lying scattered in confusion, and among them the broken frame of Shelley's favourite skif, destined never again to find so venturesome a pilot.

And where, meantime, was the Ariel herself? She was discovered by some sailors, employed by Trelawny for that purpose, sunk in ten or fifteen fathoms of water, about two miles off the coast, and being raised in the following September, was found to have her gunwale stove in, as if she had been run down by an Italian felucca during the squall ; whence arose the suspicion, which has never been satisfactorily proved or disproved, that there was an intent to plunder the vessel of some money which was known to be on board. Having been repaired and rigged afresh, the Ariel was again sent to sea, but she proved unseaworthy and a second time suffered shipwreck. "Her shattered planks," wrote Mrs. Shelley in 1839, " now lie rotting on the shore of one of the Ionian islands on which she was wrecked." Strange that the Ariels existence should have ended on one of those very Greek islands to which Shelley's fancy had so often been attracted as a possible home and place of refuge from the calamities that beset him.

For a year after her husband's death, Mary Shelley remained in Italy, unable to tear herself away from the land of their adoption, in spite of the many painful memories it awakened. In all the records of fact and fiction it would be difficult to find anything more truly pathetic and heart-rending than the published extracts from the journal she kept during those first dreary months of bereavement and solitude. The thought and image of Shelley were ever present to her mind; now it was the tone of Byron's voice that, by sheer force of old association, would make her listen for fhat other voice which, when Byron spoke, had ever been wont to reply; now, as she mused and read in a fit of deep abstraction, it was Shelley himself who seemed to call her, as a sudden voice cried "Mary!" The sense of utter loneliness was only relieved by the confident expectation of hereafter rejoining, in another existence, that swift and gentle soul, who, in this earthly prison-house, had been like a caged spirit, "an elemental being, enshrined in a frail image." But this desire for death was not yet to be gratified ; there was first a long course of widowhood to be bravely encountered and lived through; her aged father to be cheered and tended; her child to be educated ; and, most sacred duty of all, her husband's writings to be collected, edited, and given to the world.

Meanwhile, in stolid contrast to these shifting scenes of life and death, giief and pleasure, rapturous aspiration and heavy despondency, Sir Timothy Shelley, now an old man of seventy years of age, still lived on, as stem and unyielding as ever. Eton, Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Ireland, Wales, Switzerland, Marlow, Venice, Naples, Florence, Pisa, Spezzia, and Rome — these were the places at which were enacted the strangest events of that strange drama of a lifetime, that "miracle of thirty years," of which the secret and motive power were love; but Field Place still remained as it had been when its doors were first closed against the youthful offender who, by his reprehensible thirst for knowledge, had incurred the anger of the learned men entrusted with his religious and intellectual education. Eleven years had now passed since Sir Timothy, writing to the father of Shelley's college friend and fellow sufferer, had insisted on the necessity of keeping "my young man" and "your young man" apart. And now "my young man" had run a desperate and erratic career, in which a few misguided people affected to see a subject for interest and approval, but which had brought down on him the unsparing condemnation of the Lord Chancellor, the Quarterly Review, and all that England possessed of wealth, orthodoxy, and respectability.

The dishonour to Field Place was deep and indelible; there was one thing, however, which was still within Sir Timothy Shelley's power, as it was clearly his duty, to do. He could take advantage of his control of the purse to forbid his son's widow writing a life of the poet, and thus further disgracing the Shelley family by the publication of deeds which it was far wiser to consign to a charitable f orgetfulness. Moreover, that an innocent child might not suffer for the offences of guilty parents. Sir Timothy offered to undertake the maintenance of his infant grandson, on condition that he was wholly taken from his mother's charge; but this offer, it is needless to say, was refused by Mary Shelley. "Why, I live only to keep him from their hands," was the entry in her journal.

So Sir Timothy Shelley, by no means breathing reconciliation, lived on till he had completed his ninetieth year, a life three times the length of that of his undutiful son ; and when he died, no Cot Cordium but a flattering inscription of the conventional kind was set to blazen his virtues on the walls of Horsham Church. It may be, however, that those who thoughtfully ponder the contrast between these two lives, and the lessons conveyed by each, will see in the contrast a striking instance of the truth of an old poet's words : —

''Circles are praised, not that abound
In largeness, but the exactly round;
So life we praise that does excel
Not in much, time, but living well."

Chapter 14 | Index